Barack Obama’s speech at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference last week didn’t contain much of anything that was groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Yet, just days before the speech, organizers at Sloan told attendees that the speech was to be off the record, earning a fair bit of scorn in the process. Of course, the speech didn’t stay off the record for long, as Reason posted a leaked copy of the speech on Monday.
With the conference and speech behind us and the speech now online, criticism for Sloan’s decision hasn’t quieted down. An article by Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal quotes both ESPN’s Bob Ley and former ESPN exec John Walsh blasting the decision to keep the speech off the record, with Ley calling it a “classic lose/lose/lose” situation.
“This was a classic lose/lose/lose,” Bob Ley, the longtime ESPN journalist and anchor of Outside the Lines, wrote to me in a text message. “Conference organizers come off looking like a brigade of self-important pocket-protector stat worshippers. Journalists who acquiesced should go back to the front desk for their cojones, where they checked them.”
“The ultimate hilarious irony is that nothing Mr. Obama said was revelatory,” Ley continued. “Thank goodness someone did the right thing and leaked the speech.”
Another person that spoke out against the decision was Walsh, who retired from ESPN three years ago and placed and emphasis and focusing on reporting and news-gathering during his time with the company. Gay notes that Walsh is a member of Sloan’s honorary executive board and has been to a number of the conferences in the past.
Walsh said he wasn’t told that the Obama chat was going to be off the record. If he had been, he said, he’d have called it “crazy.”
“Just tell him it’s going to be on the record,” Walsh said. “What the heck is he going to say that’s going to be embarrassing? Is he going to be critical of Trump’s algorithm? Is he going to second-guess the personnel decisions of the New Jersey Generals?”
It’s telling that Ley and Walsh, two people who have flown the ESPN flag for years, were so critical of the decision, especially given that ESPN is Sloan’s lead sponsor and that its personalities were all over the conference this year.
The decision by Sloan wasn’t a good one, and making the decision public a day or two before Obama’s speech was arguably worse than the initial offense.
Perhaps more interesting was the fact that Obama’s camp didn’t know that the media would be at the speech, which seems like a dubious (at best) claim.
“Our initial understanding was that reporters wouldn’t be attending the Q-and-A,” the Obama source said of the Sloan appearance. “But subsequently, we were informed that they’d been invited and had agreed to the off-record nature of the event.”
It’s great to know that everyone was communicating so well heading into the conference.